Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV

I first visited Montreal in August 2008. There, I have a second cousin once removed who’s got almost the same name as me. He used to play drums and played in a band. One time he mentioned Nine Inch Nails. That band name stayed on the back of my head until a year later, when I actually checked them out… and found out it was actually just one guy. And he had just released two free albums. Ghosts I-IV was the first album from him I listened to, and although it’s quite different from his usual stuff it opened my mind to a new musical palette. I still have to find an ambient album as dark as that quadruple EP.

What I Listen To: A Brief History

From birth to the start of high school, my relationship with music was that of your average person/child. I remember for one that at some point I especially liked Maroon 5. You know, when they weren’t just Adam Levine and a hip producer and had their own style. Also, an Italian band called Negramaro managed to get my attention. I have a partial discography of them in my archives somewhere, but I never found the occasion to dig into it. Another detail I fondly remember was the way I and my older sister coped with the lack of broadband Internet and our understandable desire to have MP3s on our computers: we would position a crappy headset microphone in front of our TV’s speaker, tune in on MTV and record the audio from the music videos on rotation. You know, the mid 2000s, that weird middle ground after the nu metal wave and before people like Lady Gaga started to dominate the pop landscape. The age of Hoobastank, Avril Lavigne and Gwen Stefani, and other people I should probably do a separate post about. As far as I know, what we used to do should be legal for personal use. Too bad you can’t do that anymore because MTV is more concerned with teenage mothers than music nowadays… but I’m digressing.

Two pivotal things could be considered the catalysts of my music discoveries over my teenage years. Basically, everything about my music knowledge and taste can be traced back to one of them.

Pokémon

The only video game I played consistently over the course of my life, and the origin of my obsession for all things Japanese first and Asian later on. The turning point was a day in early September 2007. I had broadband Internet for six months now, and I was starting to explore the perks of broadband Internet… mainly YouTube. I found this, and my life changed forever:

From there I started digging into Pokémon anime opening and ending themes, both Japanese and English. But I liked the Japanese more. And in January 2008, I took the decision of purging my iPod from everything that wasn’t Japanese Pokémon music. At that time, I also became anal about ID3 tags. Every song had to have the original moonrunes in its tags, even if I couldn’t read any Japanese at the time. It paid off eventually, as at least hiragana and katakana started getting inside my head.

Pokémon were also at the beginning of 14 years old me’s obsession for all things Nintendo. And in a day of May 2008, while looking for Super Mario World videos, YouTube threw this bone Koopa shell at me:

I didn’t know any of the songs featured in this huge medley apart from those pulled from Mario games (I don’t know a lot of them now either, but I came to know some once I got more into anime), but one of them stood out to me in the track listing. It appears in the video above from 3:01 to 3:11, and you can hear it in full here. It was the opening theme of the first Digimon anime, something I used to enjoy along with Pokémon in my childhood but then started to hate after Ken Ichijouji in season two managed to scare the hell out of me. Yeah, I was an impressionable child. But after this rediscovery I started digging into that anime (which I love now, by the way) and Kouji Wada‘s music became my go-to for pretty much everything. I don’t see him as the holy grail I thought he was back then but I still enjoy listening to him for some quick nostalgia, and he has a nice and distinctive voice.

Unlikely as it seems, Nintendo and Kouji Wada were the catalysts of another huge chunk of my music tastes. Speaking of the former, while browsing YouTube for Mario music I stumbled upon Powerglove

…and discovered heavy metal. Power metal, to be exact. And that’s where my bias stayed for the entirety of my “metalhead” phase. I put that in quotes because I’ve never been the stereotypical metalhead: I never got into the heavier varieties (I still don’t get death metal to be honest) and I started hanging out with other metalheads only when I was on the way out of it. My favourite metal band at the time was Rhapsody Of Fire, which I now affectionately refer to as “a deluded Tolkien wannabe and his playmates”. I only now realize that they churned their own formula to death, but heck if it wasn’t a good formula! In small doses, that is.

Speaking of Kouji Wada, the admin of an Invisionfree board dedicated to him listed this band called SIAM SHADE as her favourite band, and once I looked into it they became mine too. And a year later, somebody in a YouTube comment mentioned UVERworld as the next SIAM SHADE (I don’t actually agree with that statement, but thank God they made it!) and a world of unheard sound possibilities opened. These bands deserve their own posts too, really. The same forum admin sometime around April 2009 started spazzing out about some Korean boys in her blog, and that’s how I got my first introduction to k-pop. To be honest, I didn’t really start digging into it until this trended on Twitter a year later, but everybody has to start somewhere.

My best friend

He was the first guy I talked to on my first day of high school. I wasn’t really asking him to be my friend, especially when it became clear that the classmate I had a crush on got along very well with him. But once that settled, I put aside the pride and realized that hey, he’s a nice pal, we became best friends and still are now. Heck, he’s basically the only person from high school I still hang out with regularly.

He was a hardcore Britney Spears fan. And having him around meant I had lots of exposure to her music. So I got a hand on Circus, but I didn’t really get Britney until Femme Fatale came out. That album was the one that definitely sold me to pop music. I studied that album over and over, and I know it inside out. Hold It Against Me surprised me with what first sounded to me like a metalcore breakdown with electronic instrumentation and soon discovered was actually called dubstep. Around the same time, my focus shifted from performing artists to music producers. Still today, often I don’t care much about who’s singing a certain song, I know better. Ke$ha and Katy Perry are just two Dr. Luke brands, the latter with some more Max Martin. Lady Gaga writes her own songs and commissions beats to an entourage of producers among which Moroccan RedOne stands out. And he’s behind pretty much every single dumb sounding dance number you can think of. You get the point.

His music tastes expanded to all kinds of hipster music over the years, way before they were cool and before I could even understand their appeal. I still find Lana Del Rey terribly sleep-inducing despite his love for her, but artists like Marina And The Diamonds, Sky Ferreira and Grimes I enjoy from time to time. Although it usually takes me time to get them… you could say I jump on the bandwagon only when they hit the mainstream. Hey, I’m not perfect. But if there’s one thing I learned is that if I want to know in advance what the music of the future will sound like, he’s probably listening to it right now.

And thank God he’s not listening to PC Music.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Downtown

  1. Looks like Macklemore is building a whole career on bargaining: after his thrift shop adventures, he’s back for cheap and gets a 1987 Kawasaki moped for 800 bucks. Good for you I say? #omgsohipster
  2. You’re totally not trying to cash in on 2014’s pop savior, eh? But since you’re Macklemore the master of bargaining uptown is too wealthy-sounding for you, so you go downtown instead? You also have no idea of what made that song cool, since you replaced the badass a cappella bass line with a friggin’ stock cowbell loop and amped up the thug choir thing beyond silly by bringing on board a whole slew of old school rappers. Also, no cool brass lines? Are you relegating them to mere decoration?
  3. Did I mention the friggin’ stock cowbell loop? ARE YOU SERIOUS? Are you building a whole song around YouTube soundtrack material? You should pick your loops better next time…
  4. Somebody must have told Ryan Lewis that they have this cool tradition in Korea of cramming multiple songs together into an off-putting but awesome Frankenstein monster, and he wanted to join the fun apparently! But they didn’t tell him that the parts have to stand up on their own: it’s not like you mix a totally off the wall Freddy Mercury inspired vocal (more on the Mika side but you get the point) with a bland cowbell-y Uptown Funk try-hard beat and expect it to automatically sound cooler than the sum of its parts. There’s an unbalance in quality here: I would have been plenty happy with just the Queen section at this point. And heck, you could have made it work too: Queen could have taught you a thing or two about disco, you know?
  5. Still, props to the two for trying to sound different: I’m sure it will come out better next time you try. I probably won’t still like it because I find Macklemore’s voice annoying, but that’s just me.
  6. Isn’t this whole bringing in old school rappers thing a way to answer those dumb cultural appropriation/only-blacks-and-Eminem-can-rap arguments? Way to go, pal! Although it might make you look like you’re begging for credibility or something. But I know you don’t give a cuff anyway, and neither do I.

Ariana Grande – Focus

I’ll start this blog with the song that’s been on repeat for the last few days on my Spotify. Gotta admit I wasn’t very keen on it at first: structurally this song is trying to be Problem‘s successor, with the same buildup ending on G#5 (hey, is Ariana trying to claim that note for herself?) followed by an uncredited guest that drops the hook line. And here’s my first problem: WHAT’S UP WITH JAMIE FOXX?!? Who thought that drawn out “focus oooon me” was a good idea? Turns out that the song gets redeemed for this misstep halfway through, when Ariana in a quite k-pop move announces “1, 2, 3, come on girls” and lets awesome brass take centre stage. Man, that’s the true hook of the song. Apparently I’m able to close an eye to those cringy shouts and enjoy the aforementioned hook, Ariana generally having a good time more than in Problem and the tasteful trancey pads in the buildup. About those, though, I wished they would keep on following the vocal line closely even after the first four notes instead of just going in autopilot. Chord progressions tracking the main melody are cool, you know? Another thing I’m not too sure about is the cowbell-y groove, but the song works regardless so yeah. It’s probably more a problem of reminding me of another song that’s charting lately and that I don’t love very much… but that’s for the next post.

…turns out Max Martin produced this. This explains everything.